Greatest Imagined Hits: 4 out of 5
Ashtray Navigations Imagined by Rob Hayler: 4 out of 5
Ashtray Navigations Imagined by Henry Rollins: 3 out of 5
Ashtray Navigations Imagined by Pete Coward: 3 out of 5
Ashtray Navigations Imagined by Neil Campbell: 3 out of 5
Label: VHF Records
Produced by: Dominic Claire (recorded by, main album); Various
40 minutes of new, badass material – full of riffs, of slidge, of the most space-rockiest space rock ever – and then four additional discs of rare material collected and collated by fans of the band…
This is a damned slab of stuff, and I’d have to imagine plucking from sources difficult to find for even some seasoned collectors. I mean, I wouldn’t know, I’m an Ashtray Navigations noob, listening to this Phil Todd and Melanie O’Dubhslaine-led collective for essentially the first (dedicated) time, but just looking at the slew of releases under the group’s belt, I’d guess even most fans only own a fraction of their work.
As something of a preface to how these were reviewed, I’ll admit to putting the majority of my listening time into the “main” release, which I’ll call by the collection name, Greatest Imagined Hits. It’s first probably the most up my avenue out of the experimental variations on display throughout everything here, leaning in to more song-ish constructions with some identifiable melodies and “verses.” It’s also more rock-geared, and, by comparison to what follows, being 4 discs of tracks plucked from singles and whatnot, the album is simply more sequenced: the tracks feel like they belong together. I do think a couple of our collators did a great job of stitching together their selected songs, but there’s nonetheless a patchwork feel to all of them, maybe Pete Coward’s especially. And whether purposeful or by happenstance of each person’s tastes, the discs all have particular sensibilities, I’d say, and none of them are quite as rocking as the main material. So it’s very, very possible that if you’d presented me any one of these extra albums on its lonesome, I’d consider it differently, but I listened to this stuff altogether, and it was thus hard not to compare and contrast.
Regarding the main record, in my ongoing adoration of the various psych / folk / noise that VHF puts out, I love my share of the chaotic shimmers of, say, Sunroof!, or the more blissed out flavor of Vibracathedral Orchestra, but it’s also equally satisfying when all that haze outputs something a bit more direct – Flower-Corsano Duo comes to mind. Ashtray Navigations give me a bit of the best of all worlds: the LP’s first half is actually somewhat structured, leading gentle keys into a rough riff that carries us through the opener, and then on to some equally hard-hitting grooves on the followup tracks. As we flip over to the B-side, though, things get weird, blasting off to an unidentifiable cacophony of sounds and reverb, with that guitar just soloing out on us the whole while. The sacrifice to this approach is that our songs have no conclusions – they just end. This isn’t so uncommon for the noisier bands on VHF, or this style in general, but it’s enough of a contrast to the A-side’s more song-like vibe – with the link between the two that forefronted guitar – that it’s rather jarring. Phil and Melanie do balance this out in the end, though: closer Cosmic Lever is a goofy, enjoyable piece of boppy nigh-pop, with a catchy note jaunt leading the way over this lovably metallic sounding bass.
On the “Imagined by” discs, Rob Hayler’s definitely made the biggest impression on me, sticking more to what I’d consider Ashtray’s ‘spacier’ side – again somewhat rock oriented, maybe a bit of humor similar to Cosmic Lever, and solid sequencing. If this didn’t have that slight pick-and-choose vibe to the collection, it would stand toe-to-toe with the main album.
Henry Rollins’ is equally well sequenced, but he seemed to lean into tracks that were more atonal, with some rather unpleasant effects taking the lead in some songs. You can factor this into the sequencing as well – he keeps things moving, as with Hayler (there are no “dull” spots on the disc), but it also feels like some tracks were put together just to make some kind of disagreeable juxtaposition. Interesting experiments on display, but not as much of a repeat listen.
Pete Coward’s is probably my least favorite of the discs, because it’s the least structured. The tracks are very loose, very open-ended, and that makes it hard to suss out whether or not the sequencing is all that effective either. Track by track, I enjoy this kind of work, but again, in comparison to the more straight-forward / noisier efforts that’ve preceded – if listened in this order – it’s a bit more of a stretch to sit through at points.
Neil Campbell’s contribution is structured around three ‘Trashcan Antidote’ tracks, which, if I’m reading into how these tracks are credited properly, are actually stitched-together from several other Ashtray songs from other releases… If that was all Campbell’s doing, mixing them together, it’s pretty damn seamless. That said, these are also very long songs, and fall somewhere between the less-structured works on Coward’s disc, and something you might hear from Vibracathedral. Ultimately very pleasant, but there’s not really any “peak” to the songs, which are 20 minutes or so each. So again, by comparison, required a bit more patience.
What’s overall satisfying about this whole set of music – besides being a ton of pretty phenomenal craziness, for a fair price and packed compactly (all fitting within a 2 x LP package) – is that none of it feels like wasted space, or filler. I’m not going to be able to claim I can identify any given track, but there wasn’t a song that made me feel like I’d heard it before, or that was just rehashing something. I still would be interested in hearing more Ashtray Navigations, even after going through 5+ hours of it. That gives me some understanding of how the fans who made their ‘greatest imagined hits’ had the passion to do so.